When I was in my first year of university I read a sermon by theologian Paul Tillich entitled “You Are Accepted.”
“Sometimes … a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.” (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 162)
Forty years ago, these words changed my life. When I read them, it was as if the scales fell from my eyes and I could see. In a flash, the Christian message that I had been hearing since childhood all made sense. It was grace, all grace. Whatever I had done, whatever I had failed to do made no difference to God’s love for me. These words, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans on which they are based, set me free. I’ve been living out that change ever since.
Sometimes we hear something that radically changes our perspective and causes us to see everything in a new light.
I had a similar experience, not quite as intense, but still significant, reading words by Peter
Drucker, the legendary business management
guru. Drucker writes about the difference between profit-making businesses and
not-for-profit organizations, including churches. (He calls them “social
Both kinds of organizations produce things. A business’s products, he says, are whatever goods and services it makes that it sells to customers to generate profits.
But what is the “product” of a not-for-profit? A church? Drucker’s answer: “Transformed individuals.” The “product” of not-for-profit organizations is the change that they bring about in people’s lives.
This completely altered the way I looked at the church and my role as a minister. It is so deeply ingrained to think of church as producing religious or spiritual “goods and services” (programs, activities, services) that we provide to “customers” in order to keep them satisfied. (If you don’t agree, try suggesting that you stop providing some of your church’s most treasured goods and services, and see what the reaction is.)
But Drucker helped me see that our job is not to produce goods and services that people consume. And our measure of success is not how much our customers are willing to “pay” for them (with their money and participation) or how happy they are.
Our task, our mission, is to bring about change in people’s lives – the change promised by the Gospel.
Now, not everybody wants to be changed. People may want things to be different, but they don’t want to change themselves. Often, in fact, they look to the church to enable them to stay just the way they are. In effect, they see the church’s role as sheltering them from the need to change.
And some people have a pre-packaged idea of what “being changed” means. I’ve met charismatics, for instance, who believe that a real Christian is someone who has been baptized in the Spirit and received the gift of tongues. If that hasn’t happened, it means you haven’t changed. You’re still the same old sinner.
But there’s room for a much more diverse and open understanding of what a changed individual might be. We see people being changed in our churches all the time. The lonely find belonging. The angry find the ability to forgive. The guilt-ridden find the ability to be forgiven. The prejudiced find understanding. The confused find a purpose. The fearful find peace. The discouraged find hope. These changes are transformative.
The shift that needs to occur is for churches to begin putting transformed lives ahead of programs run, money raised, bums in seats, peace and tranquillity as the metrics of success. Granted, they’re harder to measure, but when it happens, the change unmistakable.
Our mission is to see people’s lives changed by the life-changing message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.